Lost Sediment: A Wasted Flood

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

The historic flood stages coursing through the Mississippi River this spring reminded the nation of the power inherent in its largest river. For some closer to the issues in southeast Louisiana, however, the experience represented a missed opportunity to capitalize on vast amounts of land-building sediment moving past areas where it’s desperately needed today.

America’s Wetland Foundation convened a forum of scientists, politicians and lobbyists to take on this issue while the Mississippi River’s crest was nearing Louisiana, pointing out the need to tap this immense resource to help reverse chronic land loss afflicting Louisiana.

“Right now there’s a historic flood carrying record amounts of sediment and we have no way to capture any of it,” said David Muth of the National Wildlife Federation. “It is ridiculous that we’re sitting here and all that sediment is going past, and most of it is going to be lost.”

As the flood stage surged on, scientists estimated that each second some 1.9 million cubic feet of sediment-laden water rushed past Louisiana’s eroding coast thanks to a levee system that channels it all straight to the Gulf.

Meanwhile, the Bonnet Carre Spillway, opened in May to relieve pressure on New Orleans-area levees, sent its share of this potentially land-building water east into Lake Pontchartrain while wetlands areas on the west side of the river dwindle for lack of sediment replenishment.

“The river is not being used for the purposes it was formerly used for, for building the state,” said America’s Wetland Foundation chairman R. King Milling. “We did not anticipate (the flood), so we did not prepare for it.”

Earlier, the foundation and New Orleans-based utility Entergy commissioned a study showing that coastal land loss and the greater impact of hurricanes this deterioration promises could cause losses of $350 billion in the Gulf region over the next 20 years. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said that report is being sent to Congress as part of the state’s effort to get a significant share of the funding the federal government collects from BP as penalties for its massive Gulf oil spill last year. The hope is that these funds can be combined with greater resources from the federal government to pay for large-scale coastal restoration efforts.

“Saving this coastline has economic ramifications that are just astonishing for the rest of this country,” Milling said.
 

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